Preposition Killer, Qu’est-ce Que C’est?

Talking Heads at Horseshoe Tavern, Toronto, in 1978. Photo by Jean-Luc. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Regular readers will remember the utter dismay I have when I see the phrase “on how” – especially when a writer simply wants to say “how” or means “about” or “regarding,” which some regard as old-fashioned.

You can imagine the look on my face when I encountered not one, but two examples of “on how” in my favorite magazine, the typically erudite and well-edited Economist. The horror! Oh, the horror!

Here they are, in a review of world-music-lover and former Talking Head David Byrne’s new book How Music Works, along with rewrites to suggest better choices:

“Many readers will skip a chapter replete with pie charts that advises up-and-coming artists on how to survive in this new landscape.”

In this case, all the writer needs is “how.” This is a helpful example of what happens when poor usage becomes ubiquitous. You see this phrase everywhere, and it creeps into your own writing. A better way to phrase this is:

“Many readers will skip a chapter replete with pie charts that advises up-and-coming artists how to survive in this new landscape.”

This Ain’t No Fooling Around…

Here’s the Economist‘s second instance:

“A chapter on how to engineer a music ‘scene,’ though of documentary interest…feels superfluous.”

I mentioned in my original post on “on how” that frequently what’s needed is the present participle. This revs up your writing, giving it an active voice, which most writers are encouraged to do anyway. Here’s the recharged sentence:

“A chapter on engineering a music ‘scene,’ though of documentary interest…feels superfluous.”

Once you know how, it’s easy to start making sense…

3 thoughts on “Preposition Killer, Qu’est-ce Que C’est?

  1. Hi Vickie,

    Thanks for this reminder on how NOT to use “on how”.
    I see this phrase used over and over again (see my previous sentence!) and your post reminded me of Dr. Smith’s famous refrain on “Lost in Space”: “The pain, the pain!”

    • Hi Rita,

      Yes, I frequently feel exactly like Dr. Smith when I see “on how” in articles. And an alarm goes off in my brain, just like the “Lost in Space” robot’s: “Danger! Danger!”

      The phrase is not exactly wrong, but many times it’s too much when more concise wording will do.

      Thanks for reminding me of a favorite old TV show!

      • Those Lost In Space episodes were classics, weren’t they?
        I came across the show while channel surfing one night in our hotel in Jackson Hole!

Comments are closed.